Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Cal Ripken and the Future of Youth Baseball

I had the opportunity to talk with Cal Ripken today about his participation in the longest game in professional baseball history -- a 33-inning marathon between the Rochester Red Wings and Pawtucket Red Sox in April 1981. After we discussed that game, I asked him about the way Cal Ripken Baseball is changing the landscape of youth ball.

Ripken Baseball started seven years ago when the Babe Ruth League offered to rename its Bambino division -- the 12-and-under bunch -- after the Iron Man of the Baltimore Orioles.

"I thought it was a wonderful opportunity to have an impact on the grassroots level of baseball," he said. "I don’t control the league. But I am not just involved in name alone either. I wanted to have an impact on the landscape of the game."

Ripken Baseball is the only community league growing its numbers every year -- about 6 or 7 percent a year, according to the future Hall of Famer. To keep the growth going, Ripken wants to offer not only world-class youth tournaments. He also wants to restore "real baseball" to the 12-and-under set.

Ripken Baseball announced this summer that it would expand its field size from 60 to 70 feet between the bases. It's a move that's been in discussion for years. "It takes a long time, but we're doing it and it's going to make a big difference," Ripken says.

The 70-foot bases -- the same dimensions used in PONY League competition for the same age group -- is "going to breathe some fresh air into the game." The bigger field not only accepts the reality that today's young athletes are bigger and stronger, but also acknowledges the growing importance of travel teams. Love them or hate them, travel teams will dominate youth baseball for the foreseeable future. The question is how community-based leagues adapt.

"In recent years, the numbers of kids playing ball after 12 or 13 have dwindled," Ripken told me. "And at the same time, there are more kids playing year round. We want to get more kids to extend the ages that they play baseball."

By playing on a bigger field, Ripken can draw many of the best travel-ball players to his program. At the same time, Ripken can continue to offer competition on 60-foot bases for less developed young athletes.

Baseball's standard 90-foot-base field fits the power and speed of most players from the teenage years all the way to the elites of the major leagues.

"There were some fundamental truths that were being violated," Ripken says. "Sixty feet [from the mound to the plate] gives you the right reaction time. And the bigger field gives you the right reaction time for fielders and baserunners too. Who’s the fastest player down the line now? It’s Ichiro [Suzuki of the Seattle Mariners]. But with 90-foot bases, there’s still enough reaction time for infielders to get Ichiro out.

"When those fundamental truths are violated, you change the game. When you have so many kids, you want to be all things to all people. There’s still a 60-foot path if you want to do that. But physically, there are a lot of kids these days who are ready and want to play real baseball and put people in motion, and move the mound back four feet."

During the recent Cal Ripken World Series, a couple of teams eliminated in early play played an exhibition game on 70-foot bases.

"We watched the offense became more of a spark, and they enjoyed the stealing and the game was natural to them. This is what real baseball is all about."

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Could Territorial Reform Recover the Soul of Little League? And Other Topics

Notes and comment on territorial reform for Little League, not using players, protecting young arms, and the Little Leaguer's 15 minutes of fame . . .

GEOGRAPHIC TERRITORIES

Little League might consider changing its ancient rules governing territory. From the beginning, Little League organizations have operated within population areas of 20,000. But maybe that's obsolete.

Maybe -- in order to offer programs for both the studs who want to play in tournaments and the ordinary kids who just like baseball and want to play for fun -- Little League ought to consider areas of 30,000 or 40,000. The tournament teams would have access to a broader range of talent and would have better competition. A 40,000-population area would have twice as many pitchers, creating less pressure to overuse young arms. Travel team coaches have a point when they say they abuse kids arms less because they draw from broader territories. Those bigger kids could play on bigger fields and develop their whole game -- real pitching (not just big kids blowing away little kids), fielding (because not so many K's and more balls staying in the infield and in the ballpark), baserunning and hit-and-run and even bunting (because you can lead off the bases).

Best of all, the kids with modest abilities -- the Charlie Euchners of the world -- would be able to play after school lets out. When I was a kid playing deep right field for my Little League team in Muscatine, Iowa, I was mystified why the season ended in early June. Hey! Where's everyone going? Didn't summer just start? The reason, of course, was that the good players were pursuing their dreams of state championships and an eventual trip to Williamsport. If you want baseball to be popular, don't cut the game off just when the vast majority is getting going.

UNUSED BENCH STRENGTH

A sad reality of the Little League World Series is that teams bring fewer and fewer players to Williamsport. The mandatory play rule scares teams that don't believe in their 13th and 14th best players. What's sad is not only that deserving kids get left home, but that teams overwork other kids and don't discover potential stars in their midst.

A reader sent this summary of the number of players on teams in the regional tournaments and in the Little League World Series:

Number of players ........... Regionals ......... LLWS
Ten players ......................... 1 (2%) ............ 0 (0%)
Eleven players ...................... 9 (18%) .......... 3 (38%)
Twelve players .................... 22 (43%) .......... 3 (38%)
Thirteen players ...................18 (35%)........... 1 (13%)
Fourteen players ................... 2 (4%) ............ 1 (13%)

PITCH COUNTS

Little League's decision to adopt pitch limits in 2007 is welcome news, as I have said before. But implementing the rules remains a challenge.

Little League officials might take a page from welfare reformers to figure out the best approaches to enforcing the new rules. In the years before the 1996 welfare reform act, President Clinton granted state governments dozens of waivers from federal regulations to experiment with the best approaches to getting welfare recipients off the rolls and into work and training programs. That period of experimentation helped identify what worked and what didn't.

Without some experimentation, we might never discover the best ways to limit the workloads of pitchers. Either Little League's new standards will work perfectly ... or they'll fail and critics will claim vindication for their skepticism about any and all efforts to protect young arms.

Critics make some good points. How will the paperwork be handled? What can you do about teams that work deep pitch counts to get aces off the mound? Why should some teams with favorable schedules (e.g., two days off between games) be given advantages over other teams (e.g., one or two days between games)?

Leagues should get waivers if they adopt creative plans to limit pitching loads. The 500-plus leagues that experimented with the rules might be given preference for the waivers, since they've already shown some commitment to protecting young arms.

Maybe Little League can provide incentives to encourage leagues to do even more to protect young arms. If a league adopts even more stringent measures to protect arms, maybe they should get a home-field advantage in tournaments.

BREAD AND CIRCUSES

As teams in the Little League World Series return home, they're being celebrated with parades and presents.

In the old days, only the winners got the ticker-tape treatment. But in this garrison Keillor world we live in today, where everyone is above average, even the also-rans get to ride down the local Canyon of Heroes. Not that there's anything wrong with it . . .

On September 2, the Ahwatukee Little League all stars, from Phoenix, will ride on Corvettes loaned by a local dealer.
“You don’t get to the Little League World Series every year,” Freeway Chevrolet general manager Eddie Espinosa said. “We want this to be a memorable experience for these families.”

Other towns are making plans for parades. Last year, the champions from Hawaii were part of four parades.

If you win, the parades are just the beginning of the rewards. The players and coaches also get free vacations at resorts, free tickets to pro and college sports events, opportunities to pose with cheerleaders and Hollywood stars, TV appearances, athletic clothing and shoes, spots on TV commercials, passes for video arcades and movie houses, a year supply greasy food from of KFC and McDonald's ("Ba-da-da-da-da, it's killin' me!"), soft drinks, you name it.

The 2004 champions from Curacao also got computers and $600 in savings accounts. They also got a visit from Miss USA, a self-described tomboy who urged them to win again in 2005 and help attract more tourism to the Caribbean idyll.

The 2005 champions from Ewa Beach were smart with their newfound celebrity. They used it to gain admittance and scholarships to elite private schools. Coach Layton Aliviado used his celebrity to become a JV coach at one of the top prep schools on the islands. I can't imagine anyone doing a better job teaching the game.

In one of the broadcasts last year, Brent Musberger chuckled that the "youngsters" from Curacao might be in violation of NCAA rules for amateur status by taking all the loot thrown their way.

Georgia Wins Pitching Classic

No one pitched any no-hitters in the championship game of the Little League World Series, but a kid named Kyle Carter made history when he won his fourth game of the tournament.

Carter gave up just one run in three starts and one relief appearance as Georgia stormed to the second straight championship for a U.S. team.

Carter and the other all stars from the Columbus Little League of Georgia beat the team from Kawaguchi City, Japan, 2-1, in the title game Monday afternoon.

The game winner came on a two-run home run by Cody Walker, a screaming line drive over the left-center field fence. Japan has played smallball to take a 1-0 lead. Go Matsumota hit a run-scoring single in the third inning to give the Asians the early lead.

Carter gave up three hits and struck out 11 for the win. Besides yielding the home run to Walker, Matsumota was almost perfect. He struck out nine batters and gave up only three hits.

Both pitchers regularly threw major-league-equivalent 100-m.p.h. pitches and spotted their balls perfectly. Only rarely did the pitchers leave the pitch over the plate.

As expected, home plate umpire Troy Carmont tightened the strike zone for the championship game. Had the strike zone remained as expansive as it was throughout the LLWS, both pitchers might very well have brought no-hitters into the sixth inning.

Japan appeared to have a chance in the sixth inning when carter walked one batter and hit another, but he settled down to retire the side without further incident.

The championship was the second for a team from Georgia. In 1983, the team from the Atlanta suburb of Marietta took the championship with a 3-1 victory over the Dominican Republic.

Georgia’s victory marked only the second time U.S. teams won back-to-back titles on the field. The teams from Kirkland, Wash., and Marietta won titles in 1982 and 1983. Long Beach, Calif., won consecutive titles in 1992 and 1993, but the first title came on a forfeit because of rules violations.

A team from Ewa Beach, Hawaii, won last year’s Little League World Series. That series is recounted in Little League, Big Dreams.